A Wilderness Torah gathering for Sukkot on 2022. (Photo/Julia Maryanska)
A Wilderness Torah gathering for Sukkot on 2022. (Photo/Julia Maryanska)

Facing shortfall, Wilderness Torah launches emergency fundraiser

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Wilderness Torah, the Berkeley nonprofit that practices earth-based Judaism, is seeking to raise $300,000 by the end of the month in order to meet its budget. To help stay afloat, it has launched a grassroots Bridge Funding campaign on GoFundMe.

The monthlong campaign is seeking $50,000 in community donations, which will then be matched by two anonymous donors for a total of $100,000. The organization hopes to meet the rest of the goal, $200,000, from foundations.

Established in 2007, Wilderness Torah is known for its intergenerational celebrations, the multiday Passover in the Desert and Sukkot In-Gathering festivals, and other outdoor educational and spiritual experiences for adults and children. Young adults between ages 20 and 40 make up half of its active participants, according to the organization.

According to executive director Rabbi Zelig Golden, the nonprofit realized it was headed toward “a cash-flow crunch that would have really paused the organization” had dramatic action not been taken. Wilderness Torah has already trimmed its payroll from 15 to 10 staff members and started to consider program cuts.

Golden said three factors have contributed to the “financial perfect storm” the organization faces: dealing with inflation and the cost of living in the Bay Area; suffering significant revenue losses during the pandemic; and the loss of two major foundation grants.

A three-year grant from one major funder, the Jim Joseph Foundation, concluded in June 2022. And grants from the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation, which supported the organization for 10 years, have not been renewed since December 2021. In fact, Wilderness Torah reports that the amount had been dropping steadily year by year, from $178,000 in 2018 to $90,000 in 2021.

Wilderness Torah’s business model has always relied heavily on foundation support. According to Simcha Schwartz, until recently the organization’s director of development, foundation funding accounted for $367,000 of this year’s annual operating budget of $1.3 million. Another $250,000 was raised in individual donations. The rest came from program fees.

“We make projections, and we’ve hit our projections every year for the last 15 years,” said Schwartz, who announced in January that he’d be leaving the job and that the position would remain vacant. “This year in particular our projections, especially around the fundraising from the foundations, did not meet what we had hoped for in our budget.”

In the long term, “the business model of Wilderness Torah needs to change radically,” he said.

Rabbi Zelig Golden at a Wilderness Torah gathering on Yom Kippur in 2022. (Photo/Courtesy Wilderness Torah)
Rabbi Zelig Golden at a Wilderness Torah gathering on Yom Kippur in 2022. (Photo/Courtesy Wilderness Torah)

The Federation said in a statement that its “commitment to empowering organizations that share our values and vision remains unwavering.”

“Our strategic planning process is guided by our mission and vision for the community we serve,” said the statement from Angela Ingel, interim managing director of marketing and communications. “And our funding decisions are based on a rigorous evaluation of an organization’s alignment with our priorities. We do not comment on individual funding decisions. Wilderness Torah is a valued partner, and we look forward to continuing our collaboration with them.”

Wilderness Torah is waiting to learn if the Federation will resume funding in 2023 and beyond.

Among more than a dozen other foundation donors to Wilderness Torah are the Rodan Family Foundation with a three-year grant totaling $270,000, and the Walter and Elise Haas Fund with a two-year, $100,000 grant for Indigenous solidarity work. Wilderness Torah also recently received approval for the Covenant Foundation’s new signature grant, providing $147,500 spread out over the next three years to launch Shomrim, a year-round teen leadership program. And it is in the midst of a six-year project to build the Center for Earth-Based Judaism in partnership with Camp Newman.

Schwartz and Golden were expecting to hear from some of Wilderness Torah’s major foundation donors this week about contributing to the Bridge Funding campaign.

Despite the setbacks, Wilderness Torah is optimistic that the fundraising efforts will be successful. The campaign had raised $33,000 from more than 230 donors at the time of publication.

“There were so many people in our community who got wind of some of the challenges we were facing,” Golden said.

Ophir and Dana Bruck, a couple who met at a Wilderness Torah Shabbaton weekend in 2018, have donated to the fundraiser and shared it across social media.

“I felt sadness at the thought of it not continuing on,” Dana Bruck, 34, said. “It’s just been a place that … we both found our way back to Judaism. There was a way we both felt really disconnected with the options that were out there,” and Wilderness Torah “fills a need,” she said.

The couple, who moved from the Bay Area to Phoenix, will be back in California next month with their 6-month-old daughter, Miriam, to attend the five-day Passover in the Desert, Wilderness Torah’s most popular program. This year will be its biggest, already sold out with 370 people registered.

“Exposing our little one to Judaism in the way that Wilderness Torah does,” said Ophir Bruck, 38, “that’s something that we want and care about.”

The S.F.-based Federation and Laura Lauder, a Jim Joseph Foundation board trustee, are both major donors to J.

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Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.